The Daily Meal's Brian Sheehan chats with legendary musician Sammy Hagar about how his childhood inspired his new lifestyle cookbook, "Are We Having Any Fun Yet?"
“The funny thing about celebrity culture is that it makes us think we know someone even if we’ve never met them face-to-face,” says Emeril Lagasse in the forward to Sammy Hagar’s latest book — a cookbook. Whatever image you have in your head of Sammy Hagar, front man for Van Halen and founder of Cabo Wabo Tequila, it probably isn’t that of the consummate “foodie” who can identify the vintage of Barolo in a blind taste test.Are We Having any Fun Yet?, Sammy’s first cookbook, doesn’t just list a bunch of recipes. It tells the story of a kid who tasted his first authentic bite of Italian food in his grandfather’s trailer, and now spends his days cooking and partying with some of the most successful, universally-loved chefs in the world.
Part cookbook, part memoir, you will get a better sense of who the “The Red Rocker” is after you strip away all the glitz and glam of his professional persona. You’ll learn he is a guy who was gifted with a good ear and an astute nose, both of which he has followed to success. He loves food so much, that when he made it, he installed a wood-burning pizza oven in his Maui estate —pretty cool, right?
He shares a lot of recipes worth cooking in this book. From his grandfather’s French toast, a taste memory he’s never been able to shake, to a sophisticated Chorizo and Pork Loin Paella recipe - each one has its own charm. The recipes are accessible and appealing, but really, the story shines just as much as the ingredients in Hagar’s book.
We had the opportunity to chat with Hagar about music, food, and living life.
This interview has been edited for organization and clarity.
The Daily Meal: Can you tell us a little bit about where you find your inspiration for cooking?
Sammy Hagar: I get inspiration from walking into a market, like a farmers market, and just from walking around and thinking about what I want to buy for dinner, I will walk away from there with an idea for a who full blow meal that I want to cook for dinner — appetizers, salads, what bottle of wine I’m going to go to my cellar and get, all of that.
I am so easily inspired by fresh foods or walking into a meat market — boom —I’m inspired. The other way is not go to a great restaurant, and I’ll taste a dish or see a dish go across the room and I’ll think, “Oh man, that looks great,” then I try to pick apart what it is, and I will get inspired to go home and try to cook that dish.
I am so easily inspired, I have always considered myself like a cat because they will bite on anything, and I’m that way with life. Same goes for music. If I listen to bands I haven’t heard before I am easily inspired to write a song or something.
How does that influence the recipes in this book?
Once I decided I was going to write a cookbook, I knew I wasn’t going to write a traditional cookbook. I didn’t want this to be verbatim recipes. I wanted to talk about food in theory, cooking in theory, and ingredients in theory. Using seasonal ingredients is how I was raised: farm to table or farm to trailer or yard to trailer, whatever it was. So, when I decided to write this cookbook I wanted it to be very personal. I went to Maui and spent a couple weeks taking notes and remembering things. When I’m at home I do things different than when I’m on my property [in Maui] because my property there is so self-sufficient. It has everything I need. Then I spent time in Mexico taking notes and doing the same thing, and the same for my home in Mill Valley where I have my restaurant.
Those notes were really the basis for three chapters, and then I laced that with my grandfather’s recipes that I remember so well, and my mother’s, and the things I have experienced with my friends, like Emeril Lagasse, Dean fearing, Julian Serrano, and all these great chefs I have been around in my life. I started to remember the highlights of all that.
So that is how the book came together. I wanted it to be really personal, and about where I am at today.
In the introduction to your book, you talk about your grandfather’s French toast, and how it has become an indelible food memory for you. What is it about those flavors and your early food memories that have shaped the way you cook today?
Without a doubt, without my grandfather my palette would not be as advanced or I as educated as I am today. It starts with my nose. I can smell a lot of wines today, and tell you what it is — I am pretty good at that. I can certainly nail the varietal and where it came from, and occasionally, I might get within a few years of its vintage. That is a special thing, and I am gifted with that.
Same thing when I walk into a room where someone is cooking, I can smell it and tell you pretty much what is in there. My nose was developed from my grandfather by walking into his damn trailer when I was a little kid (three, four, five years old), and saying, “ah grandpa’s house smells so good.” I would stand up on a stool, and he would explain, “That’s just onions, bell peppers, and carrots right now, but I’m going to add the celery next.” I would listen and think, “Wow.” I developed my smell from him telling me things. I was so interested and I loved it that I retained it. If it weren’t for my grandfather, and my mother too who was a great cook too, I wouldn’t have developed my palate.
Now, if I go into a restaurant and it don’t smell good — I ain’t down with it. That happens a lot by the way. You can walk past a restaurant and think, “man that smells greasy.”
I think my education came from that. It really influenced who I am today, so when I smell good food or taste good food I know it.
It may surprise some readers to find out how connected you are with the “food world” since many hold this steadfast image of you as a rocker. What are the creative similarities you notice between making music and cooking food?
The similarities are unbelievably the same. When you write a song, you start from nothing and you start with, “I’m going to pick up my guitar, and I am going to try and write a song.” Same when you go to the meat market and you say, “I’m going to get a duck, and I think I’m going to cook a meal.” Now you’ve got a duck and you’ve got a guitar. You have the basis for what you are going to do.
So now you start noodling around with the guitar. With the duck, you just start thinking about it, and looking at it. For the song, you think about how you will sing the melody like this and make the tempo like that. Now we have a song, but we need a pretty melody, and a bridge. Maybe now you need a base, some drums, maybe no drums, just a tambourine. Then, you record it and it’s done. It came from nothing.
It's the same thing with that duck. You think, “Gee, what would go good with the duck?” Cabbage goes good with duck, maybe potatoes. Both go good with duck, but it needs some seasoning — maybe some caraway, and a little salt and pepper, of course. Good start. Then you have duck fat; maybe fry the potatoes in the duck fat. Potatoes in duck fat are probably the best fried potatoes you will have in your life, in my opinion. Then, you realize it’s a little bit rich, so I need some acid — maybe orange, lemon, or vinegar. Boom, boom, boom some spice for the potatoes, like paprika, and you’re home. Now you have written a song and cooked a meal.
They are very similar. You start with nothing — no idea — and you create something.
You have close relationships with many chefs , like Emeril, who wrote the introduction to this book, can you pinpoint a specific time you were in the kitchen with one of these chefs and had an “aha” moment that changed the way you thought about food?
I’ve seen real chefs, like Emeril and Mario and all my chef friends, and I’ve seen them cook. I’ve seen how Dean Fearing elevated chicken fried steak from just being a southern dish that my grandma made to a highly sophisticated mix of seasoning for a elegant, five-star chicken fried steak.
I’ve seen Emeril walk up to my tomato sauce, in my kitchen in Maui, when I had just had my pizza oven put in, and he comes in, tastes it, re-seasons it, and just blew it out of the water. And I was like, “Wow.” It was like I didn’t know what I was doing in there. When you see a master at work, you realize how gifted the real great chefs are. They are gifted just like maybe watching me going up on stage playing for 50,000 people and entertaining them. There are masters, there are guys that are great, and there are guys that are just OK, and all that, but my chef friends that I have become friends with over the years are masters.
When you cook with them you really see those little things they do, and you just want to know how they did that — it is so good now.
How would you want readers to approach — and use — this cookbook?
I want them to read it, and if you can make it through the book without cooking something, then God bless you. But, I know you are going to stop and think, I am going to make that right now, or I’m going to make that tonight.
You are going to get hungry reading it, so it will be hard not to start using it. It is a read. When you finish reading it and hearing all the stories, my tips, and life in general, you are going to be better in the kitchen, at the bar, and at living life — I think I can elevate your life a little bit.
My philosophy on cooking and living is in there. So, I want you to read this book first. I want you to get all you can out of it, and then go back and cook all the recipes from it that you think you can handle. I want you to have a blast; I want to enrich your life.
What are some of your favorite food memories or less favorite experiences from eating on the road?
My favorite one is my first time on the road, and I ate at Pó, Mario Batali’s first restaurant. It was as close to my grandpa’s cooking as I had ever had in my life. At that point grandpa was long gone, and it was just like, “wow.” He actually touched my soul with his food.
The first time I ever ate at Emeril’s in New Orleans, I had never had that kind of food. I had eaten Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun food, I had eaten po'boys in New Orleans before, but I had never had that kind of elevated Creole cooking. It blew my mind, and I got to be friends with Emeril. He is one of the dearest friends I have.
It goes on and on.
The only bad experiences I ever had was back when I didn’t have any money and we were just eating whatever we could. We would go to an all-you-can-eat salad bar. They would have a crock of soup and rubbery lettuce, used up dressings. I would eat as much as I could for $3.99; those were some bad experiences, but they were necessary.
What’s your go-to meal you love to cook?
It is pasta without a doubt. I am a pasta nut. It is so limitless. If someone said, “Desert Island,” I would take salt, olive oil, and pasta. Hopefully I would find water to boil it in. You can put damn near anything in it. I’m a linguini, bucatini guy. I like it a little bit thicker than spaghetti. My go-to is always pasta.
Want to try a recipe?
Antonio’s Roast Chicken
The ingredients are simple, but the taste is exceptional in this simple roast chicken recipe. The crisped skin and tender meat combines for the perfect chicken dinner.
Chorizo and Pork Loin Paella
What is paella without shellfish? With all of the delicious pork loin and chorizo to devour, you will be a convert to this break from tradition after just one bite.
Quick and Easy Guacamole
When life gives you avocados, make guacamole. Specifically make this guacamole, which expertly balances the acidity from the limes and creamy avocados that are lightened with just a dollop of sour cream.
This asada combines all of the bright, herbaceous, fresh flavors of Mexico in one dish. Try this simple recipe at your next barbecue or broil indoors for a quick an easy dinner.
Sammy’s Maui Mama
You can mix this simple rum cocktail anywhere and be transported to the Hawaiian Islands.
Sammy’s Rockin Daiquiri
Even rock stars like fruity drinks. Serve this daiquiri with an umbrella to encourage the carefree vibes.
Angela Carlos is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Find her on Twitter and tweet @angelaccarlos.